With the holidays coming, everyone at school as been squirrelly, students and teachers alike. With the restlessness has come some behavioral challenges, and I have felt myself beginning to lose patience. Sometimes, I just think to yourself, “Were my directions really that difficult? Why doesn’t anyone seem to listen? If I hear, ‘Wait, what are we doing again?’ one more time, I’m going to lose it!” However, yesterday, I had one of those amazing moments when everything seems to fall into place, and the students seem to have listened– and understood– my preaching. Even if they haven’t been listening to my directions, it seems that my lessons on respectful language have set in.
I’ve written countless times on this blog about the experiences I have had when I have heard or read the ‘r-word’ and felt my blood begin to boil. Many times, I have heard the word from students, though occasionally it has been adults’ use of that dreaded word that causes heart palpitations, clammy palms, and a lump in my throat. Pondering the implications of using disability as an insult simply paralyzes me. And it happened in class just yesterday.
As students were coming into the classroom after lunch, most were chatting with their friends, finishing up their conversations from the lunchroom. I was not listening closely to any of the conversations, though I heard snippets here and there. All of a sudden, the phrase, “Dude, that sounds retarded” stopped me in my tracks. I glanced around frantically, searching for the culprit, the student who uttered the phrase so that I could step in and turn it into a teachable moment. Within seconds, without realizing I was listening, another student responded.
“Dan!* Dude. Weren’t you here last year when Ms. Hopkins taught us about that word? Don’t be rude. You know that word isn’t cool.” In that moment, I had never been so grateful for Adam.*
Now, I teach middle school, so what was especially heartwarming about this instance is that Adam is in the “popular” group of students at school. He plays sports, he has a great sense of humor, and he is nice to everyone. It seems all the female students pine after him, while all of the male students emulate him, including Dan, who sheepishly apologized for using the r-word. I feel quite certain that, after being admonished by Adam, Dan will never use the r-word again. I was so proud of Adam for using his rapport with others to spread this important message.
Of course, my title is a bit exaggerated. My work will never be done, because teachers always have additional life lessons to impart on their students, along with stacks of grading to complete, lesson plans to write, and IEPs to develop. However, I am honored to report back that my words have been internalized. The message has been spread. Students are policing each other to use more respectful language, and I am lucky to have been a part of it. Additionally, knowing that my lessons have mattered makes it easier to commit to continuing this work in character development in addition to classroom rigor.
Adults– take note. Your words DO matter. Even when kids get restless before holiday breaks, and even when they have to ask you to repeat directions for the fourth time, the lessons you teach them about treating others make a difference. Keep having these conversations with your students, and have them often. They shape inclusive mindsets in our young leaders and are vital to the sense of community we instill in our classes, schools, and towns.
–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor
*Names of students changed for confidentiality purposes
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.